The first sign Ghaith Ali had that Islamic State militants were still active in “liberated” western Mosul was a mysterious square object on the floor of a house he entered to make it ready for returning families.
Suspecting explosives, the Iraqi policeman told the rest of his patrol to back away, but then he brushed up against the near-invisible tripwire. The blast burned his arm, sprayed him with shrapnel, and broke his leg.
The second sign Mr. Ali’s unit received of ISIS remnants was two days later, when a jihadist emerged from a basement hideout, bearing a rifle and combat vest laden with grenades, and raced to a rooftop to attack their checkpoint.
A woman spotted the long-haired militant and alerted the policemen, who crept upstairs and took him out with a grenade toss.
As Ali recovered in hospital, members of his unit sent him gruesome photos in hospital as proof of their conquest – and of the ever-present danger lingering in Mosul, which for three years served as the main ISIS stronghold in Iraq.
The slowly mounting toll from the building sweeps and searches for ISIS tunnels serves as a grim reminder that one month after victory was declared over ISIS in western Mosul, the process of making the city safe for its residents still faces perilous hurdles.
Nevertheless Iraqi security forces are determined to make progress, the culmination of a nine-month siege of Mosul that mobilized an alliance of 100,000 Iraqi security forces, Kurdish peshmerga, and Shiite militias backed up by US airstrikes.
Entire warrens of western Mosul remain sealed off by Iraqi forces, as mop-up operations continue and unexploded ordnance, bodies, and ISIS sleeper cells are identified and cleared up.
“Our mission was to clear houses before civilians come back, to say ‘Your house is good,’” says Ali, a short-haired young man with a thin mustache and slight build, speaking in an Erbil hospital for war victims run by the Italian agency Emergency.
“The threats are explosive devices and ISIS sleeper cells. You can never guess what ISIS will do,” says Ali, noting that the blast that disabled him some 19 days ago is just one of the hazards that still haunt the greatest victory by Iraqi forces in their two-year fight to crush ISIS and expel it from Iraq.
'Collapse' of terrorist state
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi claimed victory in Mosul on July 10, declaring the “failure and the collapse of the terrorist state.”
Mr. Abadi also heralded a new mission to create stability and stamp out ISIS cells, which would require an intelligence and security effort “and the unity which enabled us to fight ISIS.”
But the 950,000 Iraqis who fled the fight for Mosul – where ISIS declared an Islamic “caliphate” in 2014 – are often returning to ruins still plagued by ISIS cells and booby-traps.
On Thursday, for example, two civilians were killed and three wounded by ISIS snipers while crossing a floating bridge that connects eastern Mosul – the half of the city that lies to the east of the Tigris River and was declared “liberated” in February – with western Mosul, according to Iraqi news reports.
Movement has been restricted in some areas over fears of ISIS cells attacking civilians trying to claw back normal lives and rebuild, even as daytime temperatures reach above 120 degrees F.
Iraqi police Friday reported killing three ISIS militants northwest of Mosul, and said a workshop for making rockets and explosive belts and containing hundreds of such devices had been discovered in western Mosul, Iraqi media reported. On Thursday, police said that since early July, 47 ISIS members had been killed or arrested and six booby-trap workshops had been seized, along with 192 explosive belts and tons of explosives and their ingredients, according to IraqiNews.com.
United Nations officials say that new military operations to force ISIS out of Tal Afar, near Iraq’s border with Syria, and Hawija, west of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, could complicate relief and rebuilding efforts by creating a new wave of several hundred thousand more displaced Iraqis.
Lise Grande, the UN coordinator for Iraq, noted the risk to those still living under ISIS control since the Mosul fight came to an end.
Mosul is a “tale of two cities,” with life returning to eastern Mosul, Ms. Grande said Tuesday in Geneva. Yet in the western half, 15 neighborhoods are “completely destroyed” and the 230,000 civilians who left them “are not coming home anytime soon.”
She said it was “very clear” that the threat to civilians where ISIS still has strongholds had “increased dramatically."
ISIS fighters on the roof
That danger already struck for the family of nine-year-old Amina, in another example of how the post-liberation presence of ISIS has hurt Mosul civilians.
Three weeks ago, Amina’s aunt recounts, ISIS militants had taken up positions on the roof of the house where 14 members of the family lived in western Mosul.
Amina sits in her hospital bed, with bandages on both legs and under her chin from shrapnel wounds she suffered as a civilian victim of the military coalition’s violent efforts to dislodge the ISIS fighters. When she was first found, she cried and spoke for five days, explaining what happened.
But now for 10 days, she has spoken hardly at all. Amina does not smile once, as her aunt, Sahera – who lived in another district, but not the same house – tells the family’s story.
The first military strike – either by coalition aircraft or Iraqi artillery – appeared to target the ISIS fighters on the roof. It flattened Amina’s house, leaving three family members dead. Two days later, roughly on July 19, as the survivors were in a nearby street looking for new shelter, a second strike hit the house beside them.
Amina was wounded and lost consciousness, and woke as Iraqi security forces were evacuating the wounded. She survived with her 11-year-old sister Aisha and 1-1/2-year-old niece Baraa. Everyone else was killed, including Sahera’s 21-year-old daughter, Randa.
“My first reaction when I saw [Amina] was to hug her and cry. Then I asked about the family,” recalls the aunt, who now keeps watch at Amina’s bedside at the Emergency hospital in Erbil.
“We can’t go back to normal life,” says Sahera. “It’s a disaster that happened to us. The most difficult thing is they are dead. When you hear that, what can you do?”
ISIS rising from the rubble
In Mosul, the story of Amina and Sahera is all too common, even as the numbers could still edge higher.
“I believe the threat is not over, but it is getting less because a lot of Iraqi forces are there,” says Ali, the wounded policeman. “My friends [in the police force] say ISIS is still coming up from the rubble and out of the ground, and there is still fighting in this area in the nighttime.”
Several other wounded young men crowd around Ali’s bed to hear his story, and see mobile phone photos of the dead militant and a copy of the X-ray that shows the repairs to his broken leg.
One teenager was struck by an ISIS sniper in the cheek, breaking his jaw as he tried to escape. Another is in a wheelchair.
“I don’t think you will find another war like this anywhere else in the world, like Mosul, with fighters in tunnels, snipers, and chlorine gas,” says Ali, as the others nod in agreement. He looks at the wounds of the men: “Disasters.”